Let’s start by admitting something: the Enneagram is always evolving, and that makes teaching the “true” Enneagram a bit hard. One of the stumbling blocks to writing this post is that different authors have some different perspectives, particularly on the countertypes. There are three basic reasons why people might disagree, on the Enneagram or just about anything else.
- Two people have different perspectives on the same truth. The Enneagram was constructed in a school of interfaith philosophers, with some later additions by psychologists and anthropologists. There are modern writers who are Christians, atheists, new age neopagans, agnostics and people who are constantly questioning their beliefs. If you pick up one book, they might focus heavily on the connection between the Enneagram and the nine sins (the seven deadly sins plus fear and deceit). Another might avoid these terms like they have bedbugs, and instead focus on terms from evolutionary psychology and attachment theory. Another might avoid both, and talk about mindfulness and illusions. As different as these approaches sound, when you look past the jargon and listen carefully, it’s clear that they are just rephrasing the same concepts, like resetting Romeo and Juliet in New York to make West Side Story.
- Someone has information that someone else lacks. Because the Enneagram tries to describe things that are hard to observe directly, it can be easy to miss some important information. For example, I don’t think I have any close friends who identify as Sixes, and my experiences with anxiety (from the perspective of a Four) have lead me to really misunderstand some things about Sixes. I’ve also read some content made by Nines or Sevens that completely misunderstand the core motivations of Fours, which is understandable, because we are on opposite sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen some content made by people who have never met a healthy Three, or an unhealthy One, and they completely misrepresent those types based on those experiences. It’s important not to pass yourself off as too much of an expert, especially when it comes to experiences that you haven’t had.
- Someone is wrong. I suppose technically, in the above example, someone is still wrong, but it’s a forgivably unavoidable sort of wrong. Here I’m talking about a more frustrating sort of wrong, where, based on the books a person claims to have read or the experience they claim to have, they really should know better.
I think, of all the dizzying facets of the Enneagram, health and instinctual subtypes bring out these types of disagreements the most. I’ve had to work hard to tease out which type of disagreement is responsible for which contradiction. I’ll be honest: I’m still learning and while I do my best to double check, I may at some point have to come back and correct something I’ve said here.
One of the areas I am still learning about is the instinctual subtypes. Some books on the Enneagram omit them completely, because they don’t feel as integral to the theory. However, in order to use the Enneagram the way most people want to (understanding behavior), you have to study the three instincts. This is why I’m tackling them first, and hopefully if I got something wrong someone will point me right in the comments.
As human animals, we have a biological drive to provide directly for our own needs, to fit in with our social group so that group will take care of our needs, and to form a family (including chosen families, more on that in a second). These needs often compete with each other, and in each of us, one tends to be dominant, one tends to be secondary and one gets the scraps left behind by the other two. When you apply that idea to the Enneagram, you’ll notice that some of those biological drives line up with the core motivations of some types more than others.
- Sevens, Eights and Nines clash a bit with the social instinct. Social responsibilities and “fitting in” don’t go well with the adventurous lifestyle preferred by Sevens. Eights would like to rule the world, but it’s a tall order and it can be just as satisfying to be monarch of your own little clan, or just go it alone. Nines can be happy hermits and peacemakers within their own chosen family, but world peace has, so far, proved unachievable.
- Ones, Fives and Sixes all tend to be reserved, focused people who are concerned with questions (ethics, knowledge and security) that are easy to make relevant to both self-preservation and society. These are types that seek some kind of safety and certainty. But relationships make things murky, because no matter what you do, half the choices are up to someone else. In short, relationships equal risk.
- Twos, Threes and Fours (all the “heart types”) are naturally going to focus on relationships and social connections. But according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s hard to worry about those things when you’re also worried about where your next meal is coming from. The typical style of these types goes poorly with the self-preservation instinct.
But of course, just because the problems of love, society or survival don’t go with your type’s natural mindset, that doesn’t mean you’re exempted from the human work of dealing with them. The types don’t just become helpless and incompetent when confronted with the drive that is a bit out of their wheelhouse. They just learn new behaviors. Sevens, Eights and Nines become more responsible and dutiful, working to take care of the group so the group can take care of them. Ones, Fives and Sixes get more intense. They can only control 50% of a relationship, but by god they will make sure they nail that 50%. Twos, Threes and Fours drop the parts of their acts that get in the way of getting shit done.
Now, here’s where I have to admit to some personal ignorance, as well as some gaps in my research. First, different sources describe the behaviors of the different instinctual subtypes very differently. This seems to go deeper than just different perspectives. I think what’s going on is that there are so many varieties, it’s hard for even an experienced Enneagram coach to thoroughly understand every one of the 27 subtypes. Even if you’ve had a hundred clients, maybe your only Four with a self-preservation instinct was an unhealthy Four with a Three wing, and a healthy Four with a Five wing will express that self-preservation instinct in a completely different way. It’s also possible that there’s something wrong with the theory, and something other theory can do a better job explaining all these variations. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s worth acknowledging.
What’s less controversial is the levels of health. While there are differences in how people explain them, they are mostly superficial, based on jargon rather than real disagreements. All Enneagram experts agree there is no such thing as a good or bad type, just differences in how the basic type is expressed. Every type has a best case scenario where they are incredibly good people, and a worst case scenario where they are self-sabotaging towards themselves and abusive to others. Most people fall somewhere in between, and no one is incapable of growth, just as no one is immune to falling prey to some of their worst sides.
While health looks very different for each type, in general these things are true.
- Health isn’t about selfishness or self-sacrifice. If you’re stuck in your own needs, you can alienate people who you need and end up hurting yourself in the long run. If you’re fixated on pleasing others, you can make them overly dependent, then let them down when you inevitably burn out. Either way, without balance you are going to self-sabotage.
- Getting stuck in one way of doing things isn’t healthy. Life throws curveballs at you and no one strategy works all the time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a specialty, but when you keep doing your one trick over and over again, when the situation is clearly calling for you to do something different, you have a problem.
- Mindfulness is essential to health. All types have their demons, but no type is bound to them. They are all possible to defeat, but only if you are willing to see them for what they are.
- The flaws that are hardest to get away from are the ones that are slight distortions of your greatest gifts.
You can become an unhealthy version of your type through many avenues. Trauma can play a role, but self-neglect is more important. Trauma’s role is mainly to give you fears that you have to learn to reject, and this can be especially hard when those fears are rooted in childhood. Many common behaviors associated with a particularly Enneagram type aren’t inherent to their core nature at all. Rather, they represent common weak spots that you have in childhood, based on your core type, and unless you have several parents and guardians who really get you, odds are some of them are going to be hit. The same type of trauma can also shape different types differently. An Eight wants to be strong, and if they regularly hear “don’t be a crybaby,” they will suppress their emotions to avoid seeming weak. This can lead to being a hardass who is out of touch with their sadness. A Four, on the other hand, wants to be authentic, and they hear a challenge. They cry harder, or find another way to express their emotions, just to prove that they can’t be bullied out of self-expression. This can lead to the adult belief that they have to be dramatic in order to be heard, or have trouble distinguishing between healthy therapy and just another attempt to invalidate their feelings. The childhood wound is the same, but the overcorrections go in opposite directions.
Side rant: some pop culture Enneagram content creators have said that your type comes entirely from your childhood wounding, essentially portraying the Enneagram as falling on the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate. This is a misunderstanding, mostly because some Enneagram books use “personality” to mean your ego, aka your limited, unhealthy inner voice and average-to-unhealthy behaviors. You are not a One because your parents were overly strict, though you might be an unhealthy One because you haven’t yet dealt with the fact that your parents were overly strict.
The childhood wounding also ties back in with the instinctual drives. Remember, every type has two drives that line up well with their core motivations, and one that doesn’t. Most of the time, people come out of their childhoods with similar wounds based on their core type, and mostly those wounds will center around the drives that line up with those core values. However, once in a while, a kid’s life will be fine tuned to either hurt them in those misaligned instincts, or their parents actively taught them to focus on the instinct that they were inclined to neglect. The result is the countertype: Twos, Threes and Fours with a dominant self-preservation instinct, Sevens, Eights and Nines with a dominant social instinct, and Ones, Fives and Sixes with a dominant intimate instinct.
Countertypes can be a bit of a double-edged sword, when it comes to health. On the one hand, developing focuses that are outside of your normal wheelhouse can be good for you. It can add to that mindfulness and flexibility that is key to developing health, and help you avoid some of the pitfalls associated with your type. On the other hand, it can be a band-aid solution, making you think you’ve handled your demons when really you’re just being controlled by slightly different wounds. It can also make you fearful about the cost of tapping into your true gifts.
So, with all that said, here’s my simplified breakdown of the healthy and unhealthy variations of the nine types, with notes on the countertypes.
- Ones: at their healthiest, they are advocates for what they believe is right while also maintaining the humility to listen to another point of view. When unhealthy, their rigidity causes them to lose perspective and go to ugly extremes over their own point of view. The self-preservation and social instincts cause them to be reserved, constantly self-monitoring and reluctant to act unless they have double checked their response against their internal moral compass. The intimate instinct causes them to fight hard for relationships, to be the ideal friend and partner, and also to put particular pressure on their loved ones to live up to their ideals.
- Twos: at their healthiest, they are genuinely kind people who naturally attract a healthy support group. When unhealthy, they engage in “kindsharking” and other forms of emotional manipulation to stop people from leaving them, and can become dangerously out of touch with their own needs. The intimate and social instincts cause them to adopt a “team mom” or “team dad” persona. They like to be the person who other people go to for help. The self-preservation instinct makes them try to attract stronger people who will look after them in exchange for assistance.
- Threes: at their healthiest, they are engaged in accomplishments that bring real worth to their communities. When unhealthy, they can be corrupt, deceitful con artists. The intimate and social instincts cause them to focus on the polish and the presentation. The self-preservation instinct makes them efficient, willing to shed the dead weight of external appearances to get ahead.
- Fours: at their healthiest, they are honest, insightful, and exemplify the wounded healer archetype, making use of their own demons to help others through art, teaching or therapy. When unhealthy, they are moody narcissists who attract rescuers and then drag those rescuers down, because actually letting themselves be saved would mean giving up the victim mentality. The intimate and social instincts make them express their emotions dramatically. The self-preservation instinct makes them scrappy, able to put up with a lot of crap and come out grinning.
- Fives: at their healthiest, their drive for knowledge makes them sought out for their insights. They are incredible teachers, guides, problem solvers and innovators, and willingly share what they know. When unhealthy, they are consumed with the need to be competent in their particular field, knocking down those who might compete or scornfully withdrawing from others. The self-preservation and social instincts drive them to focus on practical, definable, solvable fields of study, where they can come up with a clear answer or obvious skill. The intimate instinct creates an interest in more complex, open ended, psychological issues that can help them keep others in their lives.
- Sixes: at their healthiest, they are the loyal friend who watches your back but is never afraid to call you on your shit. At worst, they are paranoid and volatile, lacking the discernment to separate their real friends from people who would take advantage of their insecurity and need to belong. Self-preservation and social Sixes are extremely cautious. Intimate Sixes are most often counterphobic – doing the thing that scares them precisely because it scares them.
- Sevens: at their healthiest, they work to uplift others and bring about positive changes in their own lives. At worst, they are blindly hedonistic, chasing superficial and temporary pleasures regardless of the long-term cost to themselves and others. Self-preservation and intimate Sevens are focused on their own sense of fun and pleasure. They enjoy sharing it with others but move on from those who aren’t feeling it. Social Sevens feel the need to get involved in other people’s lives and become fixers. Fun shared is fun doubled and so if someone is miserable the world is at reduced happiness capacity. Therefore, they must make sure everyone is happy.
- Eights: at their healthiest, they are solid, reliable and courageous leaders who can be as fierce or as gentle as the situation requires. At their worst, they are aggressive tyrants and bullies who are completely out of touch with their own emotions. Self-preservation and intimate Eights are practical and a bit clannish. They want to save themselves and their chosen tribe. Social Eights want to save the whole world.
- Nines: at their healthiest, they are able to understand conflicts without being drawn into the drama. When it is time to take a stand they can do so, stubbornly and patiently, refusing to cave but ready to compromise or mediate, fairly. At their worst, they ignore the pain that exists in the world by retreating into fantasies, and confuse these optimistic interpretations with reality. The result is that they neglect themselves and gaslight or subtly victim-blame those who are trying to solve problems (“if you just had a more positive attitude…”). Self-preservation and intimate Nines are private, quiet people who keep their lives simple and minimalist. Social Nines are busy and involved in projects, often trying to fix everyone else’s problems to make sure no one has a reason to fight.
Of course in between the extremes of the behaviors I’ve described there is a whole spectrum of average behaviors that are mixtures of both. These are very quick and dirty shorthands, but hopefully they provide a clear image of the variety that exists when a person is acting within their core types. Things get even more complicated in my third and final post in this series, where we talk about situations where the nine types might act like of the others.
Thank you so much for reading! Please leave likes, comments, all that algorithmic good stuff that helps me crank out the next post sooner.